Twisted Roots. (musician Beck discusses the recording of Midnight Vultures)
Guitar Player

May 2000
v34 i5 p86

Kyle Swenson

Beck Blends Unlikely Bits of Blues, Funk, and Southern Rock to Create a Brave New Sound 

A musical collage artist, Beck Hansen has been proclaimed the "most innovative songwriter of the '90s" over and over again. But Beck has a lot more going on than samples, loops, and alt-rock credibility. His knowledge of music history--and the heritage of the guitar--is encyclopedic. Listening to Beck's catalog is like spinning through a century-plus of music, from Civil War folkies to Mississippi John Hurt to Sonic Youth and beyond. And while his work is derivative of everything, it's also cohesive, forward-looking, and mind-blowingly creative. 

Following the acoustic melancholy of his last album, Mutations, Beck recorded the bombastic Midnite Vultures [Geffen]. The new album took well over a year to finish, with months of 14-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week sessions. Just before his live band hit the road, GP talked to Beck, Midnite Vultures producers Mickey Petralia and Tony Hoffer, and touring guitarist Lyle Workman about weird tones and crusty gear, "instant" guitar riffs, and capturing the right feel. 

Sounds & Gear Philosophies 

"I like ideas to come out in a flood, and I like to capture an energy," says Beck about tracking his guitar parts. "I'm more interested in performance than tone--I like to jam down as many ideas as I can in a short amount of time and sort through the rubble later--so I have a lot of sounds already in my arsenal that I can just dial up. For example, there's a very thin, reedy fuzz sound which I like because it's extreme, but it isn't huge. I tend to use that tone more than the monster grunge sound, because those big guitars suck up all the room in the mix. I also have some bubbly tones, a bunch of noises and rackets, and some very tremulous sounds. I like to use guitar to get keyboard sounds and other non-traditional guitar tones."

Like many once-starving artists, Beck got used to playing thrift-store guitars. But even after the success of his first hit "Loser" in '94, cheap guitars still provide his favorite sounds. "I think that really crystalline, pure guitar tone has its place," he says, "but a lot of my favorite guitar players were older blues guys, and a lot of their guitars were from store catalogs. When the electronics and wiring start to rust and decompose in cheap guitars, the sound gets this personality and huskiness that's pleasing--it's a sound you can't really create with a pedal." 

Many of Beck's electric guitars are no-name, but he also owns various Schecters (including a Hellcat he recently broke onstage in a fit of rock-star abandon), a Silvertone, a Harmony, a Danelectro, and an early-'60s Carvin. His one luxury is a 1938 Martin D-28 acoustic. 

"I've got piles of acoustic guitars that are just hanging by a thread," he admits. "But I always liked Martins, and when I made a little bread, the first thing I did was go out and buy my D-28. Once you put a guitar through pedals and all these different contraptions, the sound isn't really precious to me anymore. But the sound of my '38 D-28 is all-time--it's the rich tone of all the great folk records. You just put any mic on that guitar and it sounds unbelievable." 

For amps, it's back to the thrift store. Other than a Peavey Classic 20 and an Ampeg Jet, Beck's collection is all about "old crusty amps" that include a Sears Safari, a couple of whacked-out homemade models, and a few custom Savage amps (all with 4x10 cabinets) made by his guitar tech, Andy Wolf. 

Stompboxes are about the only things in Becks arsenal that are shiny and new. A mainstay in his live and studio rigs is a Boss GT-5. While recording Midnite Vultures, Beck programmed sounds into the multi-effects pedal to make it easier to reproduce the album's tones onstage. 

"I used to have piles and piles of old vintage pedals," he says, "but when they started getting popular, they became difficult to track down and required stupid amounts of money to buy. So now I just buy the cheapest stuff I can find, like new Boss pedals. I don't want my effects to be these precious little jewels. And if one blows up, I want to be able to find a replacement in Omaha." 

Midnite Expressions 

Becks interests are boundless. While his dad, David Campbell, an ex-bluegrass musician and string arranger (Aerosmith, Green Day), may have influenced him to play acoustic music, Beck has also learned much from blues greats. "Mance Lipscomb was a huge influence," he says. "His guitar playing sounds so rickety, but it's also graceful. I was already on my way to having my own guitar style at about 17, but he solidified my ideas about fingerpicking, feel, and the way a guitar should sound. And I pretty much learned most of what I know from Mississippi John Hurt's guitar playing. Then there's Son House, Blind Willie McTell, and Robert Johnson. And Blind Willie Johnson's slide playing is just incredible--liquid and effortless." 

On Midnite Vultures, Beck comically flits between an Ohio Players-style verse groove, a southern-rock chorus, assorted techno bleeps, and a folky, fingerpicked coda--all on one song, "Milk & Honey." 

"I tend to get into stuff that is corny or inappropriate," he admits. "I love those harmonized southern leads. They're so patriotic! That guitar riff was from an extremely rare record, but we didn't sample it, we replayed it. We actually played about 20 different variations so we could make the riff our own, and then we had [ex-Smiths guitarist] Johnny Marr come in and play ten ideas to replace it. But the original riff was just so dumb and undeniable. We had to keep it." 

While "Peaches & Cream" is a not-so-subtle homage to Prince, Beck believes it represents his best guitar playing on the album. "That's my style," he says. "There are slide guitars, big tremolo guitars, spastic riffs, and me banging my fist against the guitar. But a lot of the coolest guitar parts on the record are just two notes that don't sustain--muted, plucked, rhythmic sounds." 

"Broken Train" showcases one of Beck's few solos. "For a lot of years, I was disdainful of guitar leads," he admits. "The `Broken Train' solo is sort of a non-solo, but it's still expressive. I even snuck a little Van Halen-style, harmonic vibrato thing at the end. I was trying to  imagine Eddie Van Halen playing with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band." 

Inspiration & Mutation 

Because of his touring schedules, Beck doesn't get many opportunities to write songs between albums--a factor that often influences the stylistic mish-mash of his work. "I probably won't get back into the studio until the end of 2000," he says, "but there are billions of old ideas laying around--it's just that sometimes the final thread isn't there. For example, on some songs I'll have a chorus, but I can't seem to find the right verse. This often leads me to cannibalize different parts together, and a lot of songs fold into each other. `Nicotine & Gravy' is composed of the best ideas from five different songs. I like creating songs that are almost medleys of themselves. It keeps the tunes more exciting, because, in all truth, you're going to go out for 18 months and play these songs every night. That's why there's so much going on with this record. I wanted to have plenty of ammunition, so we'd have songs that we wouldn't get tired of playing after the first couple of weeks. But it's hard--especially if you're writing something personal--to have any perspective on what you write. Sometimes a song is good; sometimes it's a complete piece of crap. There are songs that I regret putting out. But songs are like family--you've got to have some allegiance to them." 

RELATED ARTICLE: Tony Hoffer and Mickey Petralia on Tracking Midnite Vultures

* Keeping up with Beck is no small chore. Any anal-retentive plans about fine-tuning the recording process go out the window when confronted with Beck's hummingbird-wing-quick creative output. The goal for co-producers Tony Hoffer (Jamiroquai, Jude, Citizen King) and Mickey Petralia (Luscious Jackson, Eels, the Cult) was to ensure that all the good stuff got down on tape. 

How much time did you spend on guitar tones? 

Petralia: Normally, we had about two-and-a-half minutes to set up. Stuff happens really quickly. We shove a mic in front of a speaker, run back to the board, and start dialing things in. 

Hoffer: Beck is very creative and very fast. His mind is going 10,000 miles per second. You have to be ahead of him---and that's usually not possible. When you're setting mics up, he's already practicing some riff, and if you aren't recording right then, you risk losing the riff. He's also really into the first take or two--the ones where he and the musicians are just learning the parts, and there are all these honest mistakes. Those takes have a certain funkiness that you just can't duplicate, and that's why it's so important to get the sounds dialed in quickly and have everything rolling and ready to go. 

What guitars did you use on Midnite Vultures? 

Hoffer: Beck's Schecter Hellcat produces a really cool, thin sound--it's not quite Strat-like, but it's great for funk, and you can get really good fuzz sounds out of that guitar. We also used a bunch of thrift-store guitars with bad intonation and strings that probably haven't been changed in 20 years. 

Petralia: We used copies of copies [laughs]. 

What about amps? 

Petralia: There were some real old amps, and some custom jobs made by these
raver tweakers who live next door to me. One was constructed from an old grammar-school turntable--those one-piece units with the turntable on top and the speaker in front--and the other was in an old reel-to-reel machine. They're both all tube with 10" woofers.  

Hoffer: We also used an old Ampeg Jet that caught on fire once. Beck was doing a solo on something, and the amp was in a little closet outside the control room. We noticed a chemical-type smell, and suddenly the closet was full of smoke. But that amp had this really nice, old sound. When you crank up an old '60s amp, it breaks up in a way that usually works for the stuff Beck is doing. Beck's Peavey Classic 20 had a different flavor--it was a little brighter than the Jet. 

Considering all the guitar parts that Beck typically layers into his songs, how do you avoid cluttering the mix? 

Petralia: You do a lot of EQing, panning, and serious editing. You must be conscious of where everything is at all times, and try to leave a space.

Any bizarre recording tricks? 

Petralia: The biggest trick was trying to tune the track to the guitar parts, because often a part would be so good that we'd have to keep it, even though it was not in tune. We usually ended up using Pro Tools to tune everything else to the guitar part. 

Hoffer: A lot of the samples we used were from '60s bands, and those players weren't necessarily tuning to A440. So when you start layering samples from a few different '60s albums, you start getting these weird tunings. To make matters worse, after we'd lay the samples down, Beck would just grab guitars left and right and tune up. So then Justin [Meldal-Johnsen, bassist] would use a tuner, and complain, "Man, this track is flat!" And when it came time for Roger [Manning, keyboardist] to play piano, that was a whole other problem. Sometimes, I would have to pitch him down as he was recording into Pro Tools, so he wouldn't be driven crazy by the tuning problems. 

How would you assess Beck's guitar playing? 

Hoffer: I once read a book about an artist who felt he was repeating himself, so he switched to painting with his left hand. And he did amazing paintings for the rest of his life with his left hand--which he called the "unlearned hand." That's how I think about Beck--he has the unlearned hand. He doesn't know scales inside and out, doesn't rip crazy arpeggios up and down the neck, and doesn't think in terms of positions. Everything just comes right through him, and he plays things that a trained guitar player could never ever figure out. He basically puts his fingers down, tries different things,and avoids playing the obvious. He's not afraid to experiment and do the wrong thing, and I think if people could do that more, there would be a lot more interesting music. He just feels it, and he has such a unique style that I wouldn't be surprised if, years from now, people look back at him as one of the best guitar players of the '90s. --KS 

RELATED ARTICLE: Lyle Workman on Backing Beck 

* Sideman extraordinaire Lyle Workman has recorded and gigged with numerous
heavyweights such as Todd Rundgren, Jellyfish, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock,
and ex-Pixies frontman Frank Black. For his current job with Beck, Workman faces the challenge of covering parts laid down by such diverse players as ex-Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel and session stalwarts Greg Leisz and Jay Dee Maness. 

What kind of gear are you bringing on tour? 

For amps, I've got a Matchless DC-30 and a '65 blackface Super Reverb.

Do you switch between them? 

No. They're both on all the time, and set to just the brink of distortion. The thing I like about the Matchless is that it enhances the midrange frequencies that enable you to hear yourself onstage. But fuzzboxes like bottom end and top end and not a whole lot of midrange, so I found that I needed something that produced more of an even frequency range--that's why I added the Super Reverb. By running the two amps together, I get the best of both worlds.

What about guitars? 

I'm bringing a '57 Gibson Les Paul Junior, a Gibson Les Paul '58 reissue, a Fender Relic Tele, a '69 Fender Tele, a Fender Custom Shop Tele with a B-Bender, a Hamer Newport, a Rick Turner semi-hollow nylon-string, and a funky old Kay. 

Why all the different guitars? 

They're all doing different things. For example, the Relic is tuned to E?? and the Kay is tuned to open D. I also use a capo on a few tunes. The B-Bender is just to play pedal steel parts--Frank Black gave it to me.

What do you have for effects? 

My guitar goes into a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, then into a CryBaby 535 and a Boss GT-3. There are certain sounds that Beck wants to hear--such as a really thin reverb--that involve extreme EQ or extreme effects, and it's a lot easier to get those kinds of things with a programmable multi-effector like the GT-3. After that, my signal goes to a Bob Bradshaw/Custom Audio Electronics system loaded with 12 pedals. Each pedal is in a loop, and I can program any combination of pedals, store the program as a preset, and switch up to three amps on or off. In the rack, I've got an Ibanez modulation delay, a Foxx Tone Machine, a Big Muff, a box that Stan Cotey built for me that's like a Colorsound Fuzz, a Diaz Tremodillo, an MXR  flanger, a Bob Bradshaw-designed Freddy Fuzz, and a Boss compressor, vibrato, and DD-5 digital delay. 

Many of the guitar tones on Midnite Vultures were heavily manipulated in the studio. Pick a tune and explain how you recreate the tones live. 

There's a lot of guitar on "Peaches & Cream." On the opening riff, I'm playing my Les Paul Junior through the tremolo, the modulation delay, and the Freddy Fuzz. I've got the modulation delay set for just a little bit of warble--nothing too crazy or out of tune. Then there's another section where I just use the Freddie Fuzz and play slide. I pretty much switch between those two sounds. 

What were the biggest challenges that you came across trying to duplicate sounds from the record? 

The biggest challenge was dealing with all the different types of sounds. For example, if a song had fuzz, well, I have a fuzz pedal. But what happens if the song starts with a really bright fuzz, then shifts into a  breakup-type of fuzz, and finally goes into full-on gain? That's where the GT-3 helped. I could set a basic sound with my pedals, and program the GT-3 for  anything that involved lots of tonal changes. 

Are the live arrangements fairly rigid, or do you get to play around a little bit? 

I'm playing parts. The arrangements are fairly solid. We don't stray too much, and there aren't any solos. I do get to play around with my parts a little bit, and sometimes we'll add guitar parts where there were none on the record. Usually, I'll just wait for Beck to suggest that I play something. He wants to duplicate the songs, but give them a new life as well. So we respect the originals, but try to enhance the songs for the live show.